The mussels from Brussels: 48 hours in Belgium’s classy capital

City Square in Brussels. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 November 2018
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The mussels from Brussels: 48 hours in Belgium’s classy capital

  • A quick guide to the Belgian capital, Brussels
  • Not the first destination that comes to mind for a European mini-break, but Brussels turned out to be quite the surprise

LONDON: It’s not the first destination that comes to mind for a European mini-break, but Brussels turned out to be quite the surprise.
With a couple of days to spare in the UK, my travel partner and I decided to find the quickest — and most affordable — trip, and our search took us to the Belgian capital.
Tickets and hotel booked, we jetted off with little expectations except wanting to find the perfect waffle.
Landing in Brussels at noon, we headed straight to our hotel to drop off our bags, and were delighted it was a 12-minute drive from the airport. Our temporary home of choice was the ultra-affordable ($96 per night) Aloft Brussels Schuman in Place Jean Rey, a fuss-free four-star establishment that impressed with its laidback atmosphere and street-art-inspired rooms.

A main street in Brussels. (Shutterstock)

We began our sightseeing at the European Parliament Hemicycle — the main office of the members of the European Parliament. It certainly offered a great insight into the world’s largest transnational parliament’s role and powers. Entry is free, but you’ll need ID.
After that, we headed to one of the city’s most famous landmarks: Grand Place. Breathtakingly beautiful is an understatement; this UNESCO World Heritage Site — home to the city’s Town Hall and main museum — is so impressive it’s hard to take in its true scale.
A few blocks away is the Manneken Pis, a bronze statue that’s too cheeky to feature a picture of, but is so well-known we had to include it in our tour. The sculpture is said to be the best-known symbol of the people of Brussels, representing their “sense of humor and independence of mind.”
You could spend hours exploring this area. We stumbled upon Comic Strip Route, a trail featuring 50-odd colorful murals that represent the city’s comics heritage (Brussels is the birthplace of The Smurfs and Tintin, among others).

It was time to find a snack, and during our walk we passed by a tearoom that had a long queue outside. Surely a good sign? Turns out we were at Maison Dandoy, a Belgian institution dating back to 1829, known for its speculoos and waffles.
It was worth the wait. We had the best waffle we’ve ever eaten: freshly cooked, crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. The addition of speculoos-flavoured ice-cream was delightful.
Later we made a final stop at Frit Flagey for a cone of Belgian frites — another oh-so-tasty local delicacy.

On our second day, we headed to the Atomium, an iconic building built in 1958 and renovated at a cost of €26 million in 2006. It’s certainly peculiar; but it’s the only place that offers a 360-degree view of Brussels. Strike it lucky with clear skies, and you’ll get a great experience.
Next to it is the mildly amusing Mini-Europe, a park that displays, you guessed it, mini replicas of monuments in the European Union, at a scale of 1:25. Cool spots were Big Ben — let’s face it, it will probably be demolished post-Brexit next year — and a real piece of the Berlin Wall.
A short walk away is the Brussels Expo. We came across a “Star Wars: Identities” exhibition that appealed to our inner nerd. Upcoming events include “Walking with Dinosaurs” and the Brussels Motor Show.
With the end of our trip fast approaching, there was just time for an early dinner. We saved the best dining experience to last. Mussels are a must-have, and we couldn’t have found a better place than Le Zinneke, a charming bistro serving up over 69 mussel dishes. We opted for the signature Fisherman’s Style — a delightful pot served in a vegetable and herb mix, with a side of Belgian fries. Each pot contains over a kilogram of mussels and, although the friendly staff may advise you take one each, we’d suggest sharing.
Brussels and its friendly people were a pleasant surprise, and we’d definitely return. And with its most famous foods being waffles, chocolate, fries and mussels, it’s the perfect stop for a halal break.

 


Pokhara: Nepal’s peaceful paradise is well worth the trek

Pokhara from above. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 November 2018
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Pokhara: Nepal’s peaceful paradise is well worth the trek

  • Pokhara’s restorative charms are entirely unlike Kathmandu’s abrasive hustle, bustle, smog and clutter
  • The calming, meditative Phewa Lake has long acted as a magnet for worn-out trekkers, burned-out hippies and other directionless souls sucked in by Pokhara’s peaceful vibe

KATMANDU: Thanks to Nepal’s notoriously underfunded infrastructure, the 200 km journey from the capital of Katmandu to the sedate town of Pokhara can often take a torturous eight hours or more, but don’t even think about flying. The breathtaking vistas that journey affords — winding round quease-inducing mountain-edge tracks and rubber-necking tiny rustic villages — will open your eyes wider than even the most brazen check-in queue interventions.
And whatever the GPS says, you’ll emerge foggily, feeling like you have arrived in another continent — and possibly era — altogether. Pokhara’s restorative charms are entirely unlike Katmandu’s abrasive hustle, bustle, smog and clutter, which is why thousands of tourists take this perilous path every week.
The calming, meditative Phewa Lake has long acted as a magnet for worn-out trekkers, burned-out hippies and other directionless souls sucked in by Pokhara’s peaceful vibe. Yet despite the lakeside community’s decades-old tourist takeover, the neighborhood still manages to maintain an anachronistic element of ethnic identity, chilled collectivism and hassle-free calm. The omnipresent tie-dye stalls feel like a quaint throwback to smartphone-free travel.

Phewa Lake. (Shutterstock)

The modern town center sits some six km northeast, but it’s this waterside locale that makes Pokhara such a hard place to leave. Days can drift dreamily by as one epic sunset bleeds into another around this eerily cosmic body of water. Many a pleasant afternoon can be idled away on a gently rocking rowing boat, floating out in the hazy sunshine, the mighty Annapurna Range looming in the distance. Amid a tiny island opposite the lakeside sits the compact Tal Barahi Temple, a kind constant reminder to be mindful.
Growing signs of gentrification include the many modern three-story hotels, and more moneyed travelers are increasingly enticed to remote luxury yoga retreats on the town’s outskirts. But while it might now be possible to order a decent espresso in Pokhara, much of the central lakeside area feels as though it has been unchanged for decades, the waterfront lined by tiny alfresco café hangouts which have been booming the same Bob Marley “Best of…” since the 1980s.

One imagines little has changed in the menu, or methods, of the friendly street-food hawkers jostling for trade alongside the waterside’s dirt path — except perhaps the prices. The most popular specialty seems to be chaat masala, a moreish Indian street food regular of crushed samosas topped with yogurt, onions, chilies, coriander and multiple colorful chutneys.
As well as lazing and daydreaming, Pokhara is also known as a logistical hub for serious trekkers hitting Nepal’s world-famous peaks. Yet a beginner’s trail that no visitor should miss is ascending Anadu Hill, which sits invitingly just across the lake. Beat the heat by starting early, take a communal rowboat over to the opposite bank and follow the well-marked trail. It can be climbed in an hour. At the peak you will find Shanti Stupa — one of the world’s 80 “Peace Pagodas”— a tranquil white dome topped with a golden spire. Sitting some 1,100 meters up, it offers stunning views both of Pokhara below, and the Annapurnas cresting into the distance.

Soak up the view from one of the two competing rustic restaurants, and recharge with a traditional dal bhat — steamed rice, a cooked lentil soup and a basic vegetable curry.
From here hikers can descend the southern aspect and join the main road heading back east toward town. After roughly three km, stop at the delightful Devi’s Falls — a popular spot for selfies — and from there it’s about four km back to the lakeside.
Sitting just inshore, the more-developed Lakeside Road is where you will find many of Pokhara’s best accommodation options and a plethora of dining offerings to suit every palate and budget.
When it comes to after-dark entertainment, a few classier joints program versatile covers acts and passable acoustic troubadours. However, more curious visitors can check out the handful of hit-and-miss cultural shows on offer, such as the twee traditional folk dancing and music ensembles programmed under the stars at Fewa Paradise Restaurant.